Friday, June 23, 2017

On David Edelstein and Wonder Woman

Here was my favorite part of Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017): Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) in her civilian gear is about to board a train. She eats an ice cream for the first time. As a goddess who has lived far away from us mere mortals she has never experienced this simple joy. She turns to the vendor and says, "You should be very proud." I saw this scene played more broadly in an animated mini-film a few years ago. I prefer this version. Gadot plays Diana as a genuinely kind person. She's not naive in this moment. She is taking pleasure in something new. And why shouldn't the ice-cream vendor feel proud of his work? She accords him the respect he deserves, what no one else on the platform bothers to offer.

This is the Wonder Woman so many of the critics and fans have fallen in love with these past three weeks. She's a feminist, who doesn't need men, but she loves them anyway, in the same spirit of a Buddhist monk. Equality between genders is a given. She believes in ending war and honors the few men she meets who agree with her. She is as impressive in her civilian suffragette uniform, if not moreso, than in her Wonder Woman outfit. That Gadot is more beautiful than the average woman -- she's a model -- and thus more appealing is treated as a sign of female power, not as something for the male gaze.

That's one reading. Still, can you expect every heterosexual male viewer not to be turned on by Gadot in her Wonder Woman outfit? It's not just that mainstream Hollywood objectifies woman. The entire superhero genre is predicated on libidinal desires. Jokes about superhero costumes attempt to apologize for an embarrassing truth. There's a reason Chris Pratt had to go on an excrutiating diet to star in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (2014-). 

So, now we come to David Edelstein, my favorite mainstream movie critic, who got himself into a boiling cauldron of water with his take on Wonder Woman a few weeks ago. Here were the gems:
She’s a treat here with her raspy accented voice and driving delivery. (Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation.)...
While this Wonder Woman is still into ropes (Diana’s lasso both catches bad guys and squeezes the truth out of them), fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness. With a female director, Patty Jenkins, at the helm, Diana isn’t even photographed to elicit slobbers. Slobbering, S&M-oriented American patriots will be even more put out, given that WW is no longer dressed in red, white, and blue but golden-toned for the international — and perhaps these days less American-friendly — ticket buyers. I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup, though. It was worth waiting for Gadot...
[Gadot] looks fabulous in her suffragette outfit with little specs, but it’s not until she strips down to her superheroine bodice and shorts, pulls out her sword, and leaps into the fray, that she comes into her own. More focused on world peace than bombs and bullets, she’s on an ecstatic plane of her own. 
When I first entered graduate school, a professor warned me that the students wouldn't have a sophisticated take on movies. Many if not most of them were still at the "Brad Pitt is hot!" stage in movie criticism. I kept my mouth shut because I thought "Brad Pitt is hot!" was a perfectly legitimate critical response. I may struggle with difficult ideas, but in the end I am, like most people, a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang filmgoer. I'm not going to deny the fact that I find Rebel Without a Cause (Nicolas Ray, 1955) and Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969) arousing. I don't think Edelstein should ignore what he finds arousing either. I still remember his review of the forgettable Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002): "The movie isn't unwatchable. It's clumsily good-natured, the actors are appealing, and there are worse ways to spend two hours than looking at pretty young girls in shorts kicking balls." This is how I talk about movies too, if from the slightly more acceptable position of a male homosexual viewer, unburdened by the fear of protecting the patriarchy. The art historian Kenneth Clarke criticized the tendency among art historians to deny the excitement of nude paintings back in the 1950s. I get annoyed at people who go to the ballet and deny the fact that they enjoy watching lithe bodies. There's something a little puritanical in this attack on Edelstein. I mean, honestly, Wonder Woman would be a very different movie if it cast someone less oh-my-god beautiful than Gadot. Frankly, Edelstein is taking Wonder Woman on its own terms. (A Facebook friend recently fantasized about a superhero movie starring either ugly or conventionally plain people. I would like to see such a movie too. And I expect it would illicit condescending reviews.)

Do you not like Edelstein's leer? That's fine. Do you think he doesn't quite get his position of power? You're probably right. Was it kind of a dick move to do what he's always done in a review of the first major feminist superhero movie? Probably. Is his approach all that different from John Updike's infamous assessment of Alan Hollinghurst's The Spell, in which the straight writer declared his lack of interest in any gay characters? Not as much as Edelstein would like. Like Pauline Kael, Edelstein indulges his id, which I've always found kind of awesome. Your jaw may drop at his line about Israeli women. As someone who knows quite a few Israeli women, I will remain silent, and I can see the insult. But I will say his joke hearkens back to the final pages of Portnoy's Complaint, the Great American classic of id indulgence, which still makes me laugh eighteen years after I first read it.

So now you're asking if Edelstein is right or wrong? Good or bad? You're asserting a binary that my critical faculties won't accept. I'll just say that Edelstein is one of the most honest writers I've ever read. I prefer honest critics to respectable ones.




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